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Billy & Charley’s Shadwell Shams

January 25, 2019
by the gentle author

William Smith & Charles Eaton – better known as Billy & Charley – were a couple of Thames mudlarks who sold artefacts they claimed to have found in the Thames in Shadwell and elsewhere. Yet this threadbare veil of fiction conceals the astonishing resourcefulness and creativity that these two illiterate East Enders demonstrated in designing and casting tens of thousands of cod-medieval trinkets – eventually referred to as “Shadwell Shams” – which had the nineteenth century archaeological establishment running around in circles of confusion and misdirection for decades.

“They were intelligent but without knowledge,” explained collector Philip Mernick, outlining the central mystery of Billy & Charley, “someone told them ‘If you can make these, you can get money for them.’ Yet someone must also have given them the designs, because I find it hard to believe they had the imagination to invent all these – but maybe they did?”

Working in Rosemary Lane, significantly placed close to the Royal Mint, Billy & Charley operated in an area where small workshops casting maritime fixtures and fittings for the docks were common. Between 1856 until 1870, they used lead alloy and cut into plaster of paris with nails and knives to create moulds, finishing their counterfeit antiquities with acid to simulate the effects of age. Formerly, they made money as mudlarks selling their Thames discoveries to a dealer, William Edwards, whom Billy first met in 1845. Edwards described Billy & Charley as “his boys” and became their fence, passing on their fakes to George Eastwood, a more established antiques dealer based in the City Rd.

Badges, such as these from Philip Mernick’s collection, were their commonest productions – costing less than tuppence to make, yet selling for half a crown. These items were eagerly acquired in a new market for antiquities among the middle class who had spare cash but not sufficient education to understand what they were buying. Yet many eminent figures were also duped, including the archaeologist, Charles Roach Smith, who was convinced the artefacts were from the sixteenth century, suggesting that they could not be forgeries if there was no original from which they were copied. Similarly, Rev Thomas Hugo, Vicar of St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, took an interest, believing them to be medieval pilgrims’ badges.

The question became a matter for the courts in August 1858 when the dealer George Eastwood sued The Athenaeum for accusing him of selling fakes. Eastwood testified he paid £296 to William Edwards for over a thousand objects that Edwards had originally bought for £200. Speaking both for himself and Charley, Billy Smith – described in the record as a “rough looking man” – assured the court that they had found the items in the Thames and earned £400 from the sale. Without further evidence, the judge returned a verdict of not guilty upon the publisher since Eastwood had not been named explicitly in print.

The publicity generated by the trial proved ideal for the opening of Eastwood’s new shop, moving his business from City Rd to Haymarket in 1859 and enjoying a boost in sales of Billy & Charley’s creations. Yet, two years later, the bottom fell out of the market when a sceptical member of the Society of Antiquaries visited Shadwell Dock and uncovered the truth from a sewer hunter who confirmed Billy & Charley’s covert means of production.

As they were losing credibility, Billy & Charley were becoming more accomplished and ambitious in their works, branching out into more elaborate designs and casting in brass. It led them to travel beyond the capital, in hope of escaping their reputation and selling their wares. They were arrested in Windsor in 1867 but, without sufficient ground for prosecution, they were released. By 1869, their designs could be bought for a penny each.

A year later, Charley died of consumption in a tenement in Wellclose Sq at thirty-five years old. The same year, Billy was forced to admit that he copied the design of a badge from a butter mould – and thus he vanishes from the historical record.

It is a wonder that the archaeological establishment were fooled for so long by Billy & Charley, when their pseudo-medieval designs include Arabic dates that were not used in Europe before the fifteenth century. Maybe the conviction and fluency of their work persuaded the original purchasers of its authenticity? Far from crude or cynical productions, Billy & Charley’s creations possess character, humour and even panache, suggesting they are the outcome of an ingenious delight – one which could even find inspiration for a pilgrim’s badge in a butter mould. Studying these works, it becomes apparent that there is a creative intelligence at work which, in another time, might be celebrated as the talent of an artist or designer, even if in Billy & Charley’s world it found its only outlet in semi-criminal activity.

Yet the final irony lies with Billy & Charley  – today their Shadwell Shams are commonly worth more than the genuine antiquities they forged.

You may also like to read about

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

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Mud God’s Discoveries 3

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 25, 2019

    Fascinating stuff…

  2. Robin Call permalink
    January 25, 2019

    Crafty little boogers weren’t they?

  3. January 25, 2019

    Ingenius. I agree, in a different timee, with more opportunities, Billy and Charley’s skills might have found a more respectable outlet. The characters here come to life. I can imagine the duped reverend taking oblivious delight in his historical purchases, creating a (highly) imaginative link in his head with the medieval pilgrims. A delightful story.

  4. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    January 25, 2019

    What a fascinating story. The thing that amazes me is that the sheer quantity of the things didn’t set the alarm bells ringing. Different times and not many questions asked by the dealer I suppose. Wonderfully inventive designs though!

  5. January 25, 2019

    Completely fascinating: I was especially interested to see that Charles Roach Smith was among those duped. You may like to see this piece about him:

  6. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    January 25, 2019

    With such creativity and ingenuity, these two might have gone far… the designs are sophisticated and some are quite charming! I’m absolutely enthralled by the sheep holding a sword or spear… I’d wear that as jewellery with delight!

    Thank you, G.A., for sharing another remarkable story with us.

  7. January 25, 2019

    Two words I never expected to read, first thing this morning: “pseudo” and “medieval”.

    Spitalfields Life is a daily banquet, served up with gusto and an unerring compass for
    fascinating topics, artifacts, AND characters. I admire the skills of these two (ahem) enterprising fellows — the collective series is fantastic. Dare I say, these motifs would translate perfectly to
    textiles, tiles, wallpaper, etc.

    Thanks for always shining a light.

  8. Saba permalink
    January 25, 2019

    The similarity of the faces and bodies in nearly every piece belies the falsity of Billy’s and Charley’s claims of provenance. That said, great fun and originality!

  9. Dr David Hibberd permalink
    July 21, 2020

    The Victoria and Albert Museum has a collection of these forgeries. Descriptions but sadly no images, can be found on the museum’s ‘Search the Collections’ facility – search for Billy and Charley. Until about a decade ago there was a whole display case of these artefacts in the Fakes and Forgeries gallery that provided a fascinating insight into this whole subject but I knows of no plans to reinstate this.

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